Series: Hill Street Blues

Featuring a cast big enough to fill three shows.

"Hey, Let's be careful out there!"
Sgt. Phil Esterhaus in The Teaser of every episode

Hill Street Blues was a serial police drama that was first aired on NBC and ran for 146 episodes from 1981-1987. Chronicling the lives of the staff of a police precinct in an unnamed American city (which is almost certainly Chicago), the show received high critical acclaim and its innovations proved highly influential on serious dramatic television series produced in North America. Its debut season was honored with eight Emmy awards, a debut season record surpassed only by The West Wing, and the show received a total of 98 Emmy Award nominations during its run.

The series was unique at the time for being the first to bring together several ideas in TV drama:
  • Each episode features a number of intertwined storylines, some of which are resolved within the episode, while others carry over multiple episodes during a season.
  • The conflict between work life and home life is explored, as well as the conflict between doing what is right and doing what works.
  • Many camera techniques, such as tight closeups, use of offscreen dialogue, rapid cuts between stories, and use of handheld cameras rather than floor cameras, give the series a "documentary" feel.
  • Almost every episode starts with "roll-call", and many episodes are written to take place over the course of a single day (a technique later used by such shows as L.A. Law and ER).

Currently (2014) the complete series is also available as a region 1 DVD box.

This series contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Detective LaRue and Captain Furillo are both in recovery. Furillo's struggles and subsequent lapse are the focus of one arc.
  • Always Murder: Conspicuously averted, at least by modern standards. Actual homicides are quite rare, and when they do happen they usually kick off a multi-episode story arc. Doubly so if a police officer gets killed.
  • Amoral Attorney: Played with. The police officers view Joyce Davenport as this, since she sometimes seems determined to defend people who "everybody" knows are guilty, and sometimes invokes technicalities to get them off. However, the show makes clear that she is anything but amoral; it's her strong sense of morality that drives her to defend poor people against the system, even though this may have the unfortunate result of guilty people going free. This conflict gives her adversary at work/lover in private Frank Furillo some headaches.
    Sometimes her liberal ideology drives her to deride the police as the neighborhood's "Nazi occupation force," but over the course of the series she seems to come to appreciate that the police are the good guys.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Hey, Let's be careful out there!" —Sgt. Phil Esterhaus and Sgt. Lucy Bates
    • "Let's do it to them before they do it to us." - Sgt. Jablonski
  • Buddy Cop Show: Though not a Buddy Cop Show in the traditional sense, the series features several more or less permanent pairings: Hill & Renko, Bates & Coffey, La Rue & Washington, Flaherty & Russo.
  • Bungled Suicide: Howard Hunter, though it is more of a sabotaged suicide; La Rue apparently figures out what he is planning and replaces his service revolver's ammunition with blanks.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer
    • Belker, with his somewhat unconventional methods of anger management.
    • Lt. Hunter. His rather academic and philosophical way of approaching life, coupled with a survivalist right-wing ideology, makes him seem a bit awkward and disconnected from reality at times.
    • Judge Wachtel, who appears in the courtroom wearing a dress, on the advice of his psychiatrist. He's otherwise presented as a Wholesome Crossdresser, but crossdressing in the courtroom caused a few raised eyebrows.
  • Butt Monkey:
    • Henry Goldblume, whose desire to help and always see the good in people often get him into trouble.
    • Howard Hunter, who is socially awkward and often seems a bit out of touch with reality.
    • Fay Furillo, who seems to be a real accident magnet. Basically everything that can go wrong in her life does.
    • Andrew Renko also often seems to attract misfortune.
  • But We Used a Condom: The failure leads to Renko's "shotgun" wedding.
    Renko: But we took every conceivable precaution!
    Hill: Conceiveable is right.
  • By-the-Book Cop:
    • Captain Furillo is very conscientious about following all regulations and ethical guidelines to the letter, and expects his subordinates to do the same. This is despite, or perhaps because of, the precinct being in a high-crime area where the police is almost expected to be corrupt, and too many examples of dirty officers and corrupt management in the police force.
    • Deconstructed in the second episode of season 3, where Furillo sits on a discipline board tasked with judging another precinct captain (and personal friend of Furillo's) for neglecting to supervise his subordinates and put a stop to alleged corruption in his precinct. Furillo argues passionately for holding the captain responsible, since without responsibilty the authority of all captains would be eroded. After being found guilty, the captain commits suicide. Furillo is shaken by the consequences of his moral conviction.
  • Catch Phrase:
    Esterhaus: "Let's be careful out there."
    Jablonski: "Let's do it to them before they do it to us."
    Hunter: "Judas Priest, Frank!"
    • Belker's colorful terms for suspects: "dirtbag" and "hairball."
    • Davenport's nickname for Furillo: "Pizza-Man." "He delivers."
  • Character Death: many, many characters, including Officer Joe Coffey, Officer Virgil Brooks, Gina Srignoli, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, Detective Harry Garibaldi, and saddest of all, Captain Freedom
  • Christmas Episode: "Santaclaustrophobia"
  • City with No Name: The identity of the city where the show takes place is never revealed. Some exterior shots, including the outside of the police station, were filmed in Chicago.
  • Cop Show: The show mostly averts the then-common Cop Show stereotypes in that it tries to depict police work in a realistic, gritty way, and not as especially glamorous or heroic.
  • Crapsack World: The cops of the Hill Street precinct fight the good fight, but it's at best a holding action against the insurmountable problems of the inner city and the corrupt politics of whatever nondescript city it is set in.
  • Dirty Business: Many instances, including the memorable "Trial By Fury"
  • Dirty Cop: Det. Benedetto in season 3.
  • Don't Tell Mama: When the minor crook that Belker is constantly booking dies in an unrelated gunfight, he finally tells Belker his real name so Belker can at least let his mother know about his death. When Belker talks to her, he tells her about what a fine citizen her son had been.
  • Donut Mess with a Cop: Poor Renko...
  • Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us: Used almost verbatim by Sgt. Jablonski every time he dismisses the day watch. "Let's do it to them before they do it to us."
  • Fanservice: The numerous bedroom scenes with Frank and Joyce should qualify. Nothing explicit is shown, though, and in general the show is much lighter on nudity than its successor, NYPD Blue.
  • Final Speech: Poor Captain Freedom...
  • From the Ashes: Was followed by a short-lived Spin-Off called Beverly Hills Buntz which followed Det. Norman Buntz and Sid the Snitch as private investigators in Beverly Hills, California.
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: In "The World According to Freedom," Furillo enlists the help of the street gangs to find the perpetrators of a gruesome night club murder.
  • Gang of Hats: Several of the gangs. This trope was popular at the time.
  • Goofy Suit: Belker works undercover wearing a chicken suit in two episodes. He even makes an arrest wearing it.
  • Heat Wave: Episodes 2-3 of season 3, and several other episodes of other seasons, deal with the problems caused by high summer temperatures, which cause domestic violence to flare and stress the tempers of criminals, ordinary citizens as well as the police officers (neither the police cars nor the station house are air conditioned).
  • Heroic Wannabe: Captain Freedom! (POW! ZAP!) When he walks down the street, buildings shake and bad guys wet their pants.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Hill and Renko. Not only are they unseparable at work, they keep bickering like an old married couple.
  • I'm a Humanitarian:
    • Lieutenant Hunter and a friend are buried in a building collapse and are not found until several days later, the friend having died in the mean time. An autopsy reveals that the friend's body has human bite marks, which leads to Captain Furillo asking Hunter if he ate his friend. Hunter frankly admits to it, saying that he and his friend had made a pact that if they were ever in a desperate enough situation and one of them died, the survivor should use the deceased for sustenance. Furillo orders Hunter to never say a word about it and presumably proceeds to make sure word of it never gets out because having to deal with the frenzy over one of his officers being a cannibal is the last thing he needs to deal with.
    • A one-shot character who would eat things for money had once eaten part of his finger and now won't do that.
    • Belker has a reputation for biting people and sometimes severing extremities in the process. He doesn't actually eat anything he bites off, however.
  • Inconveniently Vanishing Exonerating Evidence: One episode has a rookie police officer shoot an armed suspect in an alley. When his veteran partner asks where the suspect's gun is, the rookie can't locate it. Not wanting his young partner to get railroaded by Internal Affairs, the senior officer produces a second firearm, puts the suspect's fingerprints on it, then announces that he "found" the perp's weapon.
  • Instrumental Theme Tune: Composed by Mike Post. It was released as a single and hit #10 on the Billboard chart in 1981.
  • Internal Affairs: In one episode, an IA officer is sent to work undercover in the Hill Street station. The cops uncover her identity and are severely annoyed.
  • Jitter Cam: Came into wide US use through this series.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Moving people to a "liason office" with the Chief of Police seems to be a common practice for high-level police officers who have some sort of screwup but they can't fire them. When Capt. Furillo makes some public comments that the mayor doesn't like, the Chief moves Furillo to one. When Ray Ramano's precinct is almost to the point of police officers breaking out in a race riot, he is removed from command and is placed in a "Hispanic Liaison" position.
  • Logo Joke: The MTM kitten sports a cop hat.
  • The Mad Hatter: Mick Belker. He deliberately exaggerates his native eccentricity to give perps the impression that he is a dangerous madman.
  • Man Bites Man: Mick Belker's go-to move in a fight; along with the growling it helps cement his mad-dog image.
  • The Missus and the Ex: Fay Furillo (Frank's ex) and Joyce Davenport (his current girlfriend) start out as rivals but learn to respect each others and become friends.
  • My Beloved Smother:
    • Belker's mother, who keeps calling him at work, often at very inconvenient times.
    • Fay Furillo to Frank Junior. The poor kid is gonna be in lifelong therapy, after being raised by a neurotic, overprotective, ditzy mother.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Det. Norman Buntz. Lt. Hunter has his moments as well.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The setting is never explicitly named, though it resembles Chicago more than anything else, and Chicago stock footage is used extensively.
    • Bobby Hill takes the Amtrak day train to St. Louis; something easily done if you live in Chicago.
    • The names of some of police precincts (Hill Street, South Ferry, Jefferson Heights) are taken from neighborhoods in Buffalo, and Steven Bochco modeled the Hill Street precinct on Pittsburgh's troubled Hill District.
    • Philadelphia City Hall is seen in several episodes.
    • The marked police cars' graphics resemble those of Chicago, and rumor at the time was that the Chicago PD did not allow the producers to use "CHICAGO POLICE" logos and graphics after the experience of The Blues Brothers.
    • In the beginning of Season 7, Episode 17, one of the police cars is driving past a sign indicating an approach to Interstate 90 and Interstate 94. Pittsburgh is in Allegheny County while Interstate 90 only runs in Erie County, approximately 150 miles apart, While Interstate 90 does run to Buffalo, Interstate 94 goes no further east than Michigan. The only major city where both Interstate 90 and Interstate 94 run is in Chicago.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Furillo bends the rules to carry a psychologically disabled officer on the station roster, even though the man is no longer able to function, so the poor guy can get enough time in service to retire with full pension. He finds himself hauled in front of a grand jury investigating corruption in the department and grilled about it.
  • No Name Given: Recurring characters Rico the Junkie and "Buck Naked" the flasher (though Buck Naked is the character's name according to the closing credits).
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Chief Fletcher P. Daniels, also arguably a Corrupt Bureaucrat with a touch of Magnificent Bastard
  • Once an Episode: The Cold Opening morning roll call.
  • Only Sane Man: Captain Francis Xavier (Frank) Furillo. At least it seems that way at times.
  • Out with a Bang: Sgt. Esterhaus, who dies of a massive heart attack while making love with girlfriend Grace Gardner. (The 58-year-old Michael Conrad, in contrast, died of cancer.)
  • The Place: Hill Street is the name of the precinct where the show takes place.
  • Police Procedural: One of the first TV shows to attempt to give a realistic picture of police work, rather than a highly idealized version.
  • Rabid Cop: Mick Belker, who even barks and growls at times, and has been observed to bite people in brawls.
  • The Reveal:
    • One of the last scenes in the pilot reveals that Furillo and Davenport are lovers.
    • After getting into difficulties because of his drinking, J.D. La Rue is ordered by Captain Furillo to join AA as a condition of keeping his job. He goes to his first AA meeting and sees recovering alcoholic Captain Furillo there.
  • Salt and Pepper: Hill and Renko. Also LaRue and Washington.
  • Secret Relationship: Captain Frank Furillo and public defender Joyce Davenport. In the pilot episode she spends all day sparring with him. In one of the last scenes, she's seen in the bedroom, complaining to her paramour about how the police are Hill Street's "Nazi occupation force." Then comes The Reveal: her paramour is none other than Police Captain Furillo, the commander of Hill Street precinct! Over the course of the series, the relationship comes out into the open and they eventually marry.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness:
    • At roll call, Sgt. Esterhaus sounds more like an academic orator than a police sergeant, never letting one simple word suffice when he can demonstrate his vocabulary by using four obscure, polysyllabic ones, preferably of Latin or French origin, instead.
    • Lt. Howard Hunter is likewise inclined to gratuitous verbosity, often causing the person he's talking with to either run out of patience, or completely miss the point he's trying to make.
  • Shared Universe: With NYPD Blue. The two shows share a minor character named Buck Naked.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Being set less than a decade after The Vietnam War, the show has quite a number of one-off characters to whom the war has not been at all kind, and two regular cast members are veterans themselves.
  • Something Blues: The show's title follows this common pattern, but is also an allusion to "blues" as in "uniformed police officers".
  • Story Arc: Hill Street Blues was the first U.S. drama series (other than a Soap Opera) to rely on this technique.
  • Straw Feminist: In-universe, Fay Furillo is obviously familiar with the trope and takes care to avert it: when she tells her ex-husband that she has joined a feminist group, she emphasises that she is not going to burn her bra. Frank is visibly relieved.
  • Stuffed into a Trashcan: The show's first TV Guide advert featured Jack Davis style sketches of the cast sitting on the lid of a trash can with the hands and feet of criminals sticking out here and there.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: When Michael Conrad dies early in Season 4, his Sgt. Esterhaus os replaced with Robert Prosky's Sgt. Jablonski (who even uses a similar catchphrase to close out the briefing at the top of each episode).
  • SWAT Team: Unusually for a Police Procedural, Emergency Action Team (the term used in the show's police force) commander Lt. Howard Hunter is a regular cast member, and some of the team achieve Recurring Extra status.
  • The '80s: but in a poor part of town that is very far from the glitzy world of Miami Vice. Also, in the first few seasons it's the very early Eighties, and much of The '70s remains.
  • The Last DJ: Captain Furillo ruins his shot at promotion to Divisional Commander by dropping a well-connected City Official in the ordure for keeping a fifteen year-old hooker as a mistress. (It was the early Eighties.)
  • Two Words: Obvious Trope: One detective to another, discussing why the latter should stay away from a flirty high-school student:
    Washington: Three words, JD: Statue. Tory. Rape.
  • Trash the Set: The station is hit by an offscreen fire in the Series Finale, but the building is only superficially damaged.
  • Vapor Wear
    • When an attractive female witness is being fitted with a Hidden Wire, a detective suggests that the microphone should be attached to her bra - to which she replies that she will have to go out and buy one first.
    • Discussed at roll call one summer morning, when Sgt. Esterhaus mentions that the female officers' request to dispense with supportive undergarments (due to the heat wave) has been denied. This is met by boos and cat-calls from both female and male officers.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Jeffrey Tambor plays the cross-dressing lawyer, later judge, Wachtel, who was doing so on the advice of his psychiatrist "to resolve his feminine-identity issues". It works.
  • Wife-Basher Basher: Officer Lucy Bates tells her partner, when they get a call of domestic abuse, how much she hates and despises wife beaters. It turns out that it is the woman who is assaulting her husband.